Summer Camp Tradition Gets Reinvented

Avital Suissa and her compatriots from team Yellow Fauda didn’t win the ultimate cash prize but did earn a more nostalgia-laden honor — an Expedition Nai paper plate award for their strong team finish. Courtesy of Avital Suissa

In 2017, Moishe House started Camp Nai Nai Nai, an abbreviated re-creation of overnight camp for Jewish 20- and 30-somethings. The four-day sessions sell out each year; this year, in addition to camps on the East and West coasts, demand necessitated the creation of a third location for camp-hungry Midwestern Jews.

But with Jewish overnight camps nationwide canceling their 2020 sessions due to the coronavirus pandemic, Camp Nai Nai Nai Director Lisa Klig sensed that the East Coast camp, scheduled for Memorial Day weekend, wasn’t going to happen as planned.

Then Klig realized: Camp didn’t have to happen as planned for it to still happen.
Klig retrofitted Nai Nai Nai for the pandemic age. In other words, she brought camp online.

“We realized we could create a framework where people are doing things in real life but connecting virtually. The virtual piece is really just a way to bring us together,” Klig emphasized. “It allows people to do creative things in their actual lives, to connect with people and their community and to connect with their Judaism in new ways.”

So Camp Nai Nai Nai was born again, at least for this year, as Expedition Nai. While the physical footprint of “the world’s largest virtual color war” would be much smaller than the usual gathering of hundreds in southern Pennsylvania’s Cumberland Valley, the scope of Expedition Nai was actually much broader.

“By no longer being constrained by a physical facility — either by geography or by number of bunk beds — we realized we could make this as broad as we wanted to. And so we turned it into this global adventure.”

Instead of lasting four days, this international event lasted over a month; instead of mostly East Coast Jews in their 20s and 30s, participants from 217 cities and 29 countries ranged from 18 to 73.

There were literally no barriers to entry: no previous camp experience required, and no fee. Expedition Nai was free for all participants, though cash prizes were awarded to the winning teams. Expedition Nai was about camaraderie, sure, but Color War, after all, is a competition.

So from April 24 to May 22, 811 players comprising 304 teams participated in a series of weekly challenges that called for creativity, ingenuity and, oftentimes, a suspension
of inhibitions.

“We were definitely asked to do some things that may have initially been out of peoples’ comfort zones, but everyone went with it,” said Dana Gansman, 30, a Capitol Hill staffer living in Washington, D.C.

“You had to be willing to make a joke of yourself at times; that’s not always comfortable for people. But people were so open to the idea of it that it actually worked really well.”

One exercise that tested Gansman’s threshold for good-natured embarrassment was the Alternative Lag B’Omer Celebration.

Since Lag B’Omer often signifies the opening of the Jewish wedding season, Gansman and her quintet, collectively the Yellow Fineapples, decided to host a wedding … for two of Gansman’s cherished stuffed animals.

“I was like, ‘Oh, God, I can’t believe I’m posting this on the internet,’” Gansman said.
So, with stuffed clones of Otto the Orange bearing witness, she officiated the holy union.
“It was silly, it was fun, and you know what — everyone responded really positively to it.”

So positively that when another challenge called for contestants to tell jokes to their roommates, that’s exactly what Gansman did.

While jokes and silliness helped break the ice and form bonds, explorations in spirituality and Judaism — called playshops instead of workshops — cemented them.
Avital Suissa of Philadelphia appreciated slowing down and revisiting traditions that in the hustle and bustle of everyday life had faded from familiarity.

“It was nice to do Havdalah again,” said Suissa, 31, who competed as part of team Yellow Fauda. “I live by myself and I’m running around all the time, so it was nice to kind of have to sit down and do it with people.”

Suissa praised Expedition Nai for making the messaging that skewed toward the religious side of things accessible for all levels of observance.

“Sometimes I can be put off by Jewish literature because it can tend to be all or nothing,” Suissa said. “But (Moishe House) did a really good job of making it so that wherever you were religious-wise, you could bring (the programming) into your life either in a spiritual way or even a more roundabout way, but still with that Judaism aspect.”

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